Last week, President Barack Obama attended the Summit of The Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. This meeting with democratically-elected heads of state from the Americas and the Caribbean marked his first opportunity to build rapport with its leaders.
The importance of this meeting, though not obvious, cannot be swept aside. In addition to his attempts to lead the country’s recovery from the financial crisis, Obama’s short tenure has been marked by his explicit effort to revamp the United States’ leadership in relation to foreign countries, allies and enemies alike. This has led him to adopt what he called at the last G-20 summit an attitude of “listening, and not just talking.” Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. of by The Washington Post named the policy the Obama Doctrine.
In light of this panorama, the reader might ask: What does Latin America really want from the United States, and how can the Obama administration become involved?
In broad terms, the region is looking for a change in the tone of bilateral relations, which can lead to improving economic relations. This can be done by increasing the flow of goods and services and consolidating trade agreements, to name a few examples. Leading Peruvian newspaper El Comercio stated in its editorial page this week how important it is for Obama to value and acknowledge the consumer potential that Latin America offers – a market of more than 500 million consumers. It also emphasized the importance of strengthening their partnership to successfully address the financial crisis, protectionist trade measures, immigration issues, drug trafficking, climatic change and renewable energy development.
Latin America, in other words, wants to stop being seen as a backyard and more of an equal partner of the United States.
Now, there is legitimate concern for potentially destabilizing political actors such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Castro brothers. Their daring rhetoric against the United States and the capitalist system should be viewed as a manifestation of their inability to develop effective economic and political reforms in their own countries. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could see this threat as an opportunity to engage these countries and establish economic partnerships that will, in the long run, effectively erode the political platforms through which these regimes gain legitimacy and issue so-called revolutionary appeal to the masses.
Over the next four years, Obama has a golden opportunity to re-establish relations with Latin America given the region’s eagerness to embrace the United States as a partner. Otherwise, Latin America will look – if it has not done so already – for greener pastures to offer its goods and services, professional talent and consumer power. China, India, and the European Union are possible partners. Therefore, it is in the United States’ best interest to look to the South to find a common North.
Carlos Valera is a senior economics and political science major from Lima, Peru.